BP Portrait Prize – Hyper-photorealism is all very well, but I want to see the Artist’s soul on the canvas
As something of a postscript to my post on Friday about the Queen’s Portrait exhibition is a short note about another exhibition currently showing at the National Portrait Gallery, the BP Portrait Prize (It’s clever marketing that requires an exhibition’s integral name to be precursored by the name of an international petrol conglomerate, although I’m not too sure how happy I am having to represent said marketing on my own blog just by nature of naming the exhibition). Anyway, I digress. The exhibition, which is now in its thirty-thid year, features some 55 works selected from an open submission of 2,187 international entrants. The sole requirement of entry is that the work is a portrait, painted in the last year.
This year, like most years before it, the Judges of the Prize seem to have been unashamedly seduced by the skills of artists painting photorealistically, rather than with soul. It’s now as predicable an aspect of this show as the British summer is full of rain that when you wander into the exhibition, you double-take, wondering whether you have strolled into a photography exhibition rather than a painting one. The artist paints so fantastically well, and plies his craft with such faultless skill, that one cannot see a single brush stroke and one would swear blind, even upon being 10 centimetres distance from the canvas, that this is a photo before you. This is all very well – there is no denying the skill, and absolute kudos needs to be given to these artists for executing the works with such sophistication – but the problem for me is that, if I wanted to see an exhibition of photos, I would be elsewhere. It is also, to my mind, the inherent problem of the annual offerings of the BP Portrait Prize, and what, for me, makes it all a bit boring.
These paintings do not look like paintings, and as such they do not strike me as bursting with the emotional impact that a very paint-plastered canvas exudes. In the manic multitude of Van Gogh’s plentiful brush strokes, you can identify with the bursts of energy expressed by the artist when he went about executing the work, while in the fragmented, abstracted portraits of Picasso, you can identify with an artist bursting with innovation, with a rebellious streak who wants to give more, to change art as we know it, to pioneer new forms of expression.
By contrast when you look at the works hung in the BP Portrait prize, first you need to challenge your preconception that the work is actually a photograph, and then you spend your time staring at the work wondering how it is painted. But all of this emphasis somewhat takes away from the story of the sitter. The emotion is somehow lost in the perfection. When you can see no sign of an artist’s presence on the canvas, it becomes craftsmanship, and not art. It loses it’s soul. I compare these works to an exquisitely well crafted table – I would glance at the work and admire the virtuosity of the craftsman, but I would not attempt, nor be able to engage with the work in the same way as I can when an artist’s soul is poured onto a canvas.
There were some exceptions in this year’s show, and it is therefore unsurprising that these were my standout favourites. In Colin Davidson’s The Dialects of Silence (Portrait of Michael Longley), there is a superbly executed focus on his sitter’s melancholy eyes, which are practically photographic, but then as the work spans outwards, it becomes more and more fragmented, as swathes of paint are hastily applied to the canvas, but with no less effect. This work demonstrates both the soul of the sitter, and the passion of the artist, and that is why, for me, it works incredibly well as a portrait worthy of artistic merit. I also liked Alexandra Gardner’s Swallow which had something of the Gauguin about it. Yes it’s just a portrait, but the insertion of the striking yellow wall paper and the presence of a swallow around the sitter’s neck makes you interact with the work, wondering about the significance of the swallow, and no doubt captivated by the use of bold colour, and realism contrasting with the two dimensional black outline which circumnavigates the figure.
However my favourite work of the show was undoubtedly this one, Carl Randall’s Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar, Tokyo. This “group portrait” is startlingly original for a number of reasons: the viewpoint from above, its composition: customers on the right, servers on the left, the slice of city life seen through the window, and the exclusive use of black, white and shades of grey. I love the apathetic, indifferent stares of the customers, minding their own business, indulging in quick dinner in a hostile urban environment, thinking no doubt about work and the pressures around them. On the left we are met with the equally impassive stares of the workers, tired after cooking all day and bored of the relentless monotony of their work. But in the middle of this we have this almost embrace, the only human contact in the whole work, when the worker gives a bowl of food to a customer, or the other way round – because they both hold the bowl with two hands, it is akin to a loving embrace, a fusion of worker and customer, and composition-wise it provides the work with a horizontal variance to otherwise brash vertical lines. Brilliant.
If the BP Portrait Prize included more works like this every year, it would be a startlingly interesting show. But as ever with exhibitions judged and chosen by a group of outdated art professionals and even a representative from BP (who clearly knows so much about art) we will continue to be shunned by a group of high-gloss works which, like any photo, reflect the viewer and push him away, rather than a show of works which, because an artist has bared his soul or painted a scene of such dynamic composition and interest, the viewer is captivated and invited in. For me, it’s this relationship between artist and viewer which is not just integral to the power and purpose of art, but central to the very definition of what “art” really is, whether it be triggered by a portrait, a landscape or an abstract clutter. Remove the soul of the artist, and the painting becomes just one more image to add to the ever changing visual landscape of the fast-moving world around us. A fleeting encounter, without a lasting impact.